Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Lucia Berlin is finalist for Kirkus Book Prize

Was just hashing out my speech for the big Lucia Berlin book event tonight, cracking open another box of Kleenex, when word broke . . .

Lucia Berlin' A Manual for Cleaning Women is a finalist for the Kirkus Book Prize! 

If you're not familiar with the award, it's because it just debuted last year, but with a prestigious backer and a huge payout, it's suddenly one of the most prized. The New York Times story announcing the finalists began this way:
The literary journal Kirkus Reviews has announced the finalists for its 2015 book prizes. The annual honors, handed out for the first time last year, each come with a $50,000 award, making them among the most lucrative in the literary world.
And look which book the Times chose to picture with the announcement. Nice!

I mentioned in my Vanity Fair piece on my life with Lucia that she died destitute, and sold more books in the first few weeks than she had in her entire life. (I was being careful. She probably sold more in one week than her entire life.)

It has always been a fantasy of mine that she would finally reach a wide audience, and also receive the acclaim she's due. First she hit the New York Times bestseller list, and now awards season begins. I'm giddy.

She won't get to see it, but her sons will. They are. It's having a wonderful effect on them.

I needed all those Kleenex this morning, as I expanded on the anecdote I used to end the Vanity Fair piece: the story about how she told me she loved me. There's a longer version of that, involving the death of Timothy Leary. So I looked that up as I worked on the speech this morning--had I had the realization of how profoundly Lucia's "I love you" had changed me after she died, or in the last years, while she was still alive?

I was shocked. Leary died in 1996. I'd only knew Lucia two years! And I already knew she was the one genius I would ever know intimately, and that that was the greatest gift she would ever give me.

If you're in NYC, come to the event tonight, at McNally Jackson Books at 7pm. Details here.

I just went to their site, and look what's splayed across the top of it, 1200 pixels wide (at left). Nice.

And I just booked a plane ticket to Colorado around midnight. So I'll be speaking at the Boulder Bookstore event Oct. 13, at 7:30pm. Details here. (I'm not listed yet, since I've not even confirmed to them that I'm coming, but they asked, and now I'm answering.)

Monday, September 28, 2015

'Haunted by Columbine'—powerful NYT video I worked on for a year

New York Times just posted the 12-minute RetroReport video 'Haunted by Columbine'.

RetroReport is an award-wining nonprofit news org that revisits events from the past to set the record straight. I've been watching their work for quite awhile, and been really impressed. Their videos run exclusively on the New York Times.

I spent a year with RetroReport on this project. (They did all the work. I just let them come interview/film me, and helped with occasional fact-checking, etc.) I'm just amazed that they devote an entire year to get 12 powerful minutes to set the record straight.

The video does a great job in getting out the word that while Columbine is cited over and over as these killings continue, what we think we know about Columbine, even the basics, is nearly all wrong. (Not about jocks, Goths, bullying or Trenchcoat Mafia.)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Gay soldiers in Anna Karenina—but which translation?

I'm going to attempt Anna Karenina, finally. It involves gay soldiers, but first, the key question for all you guys: what's the best translation?

Aside from being a book I should have read years ago, Anna came up Wednesday night, at a party I almost ducked out on, but thank God I stuck it out.

It was a book launch party for Gary Rivlin's wonderful book Katrina: After The Flood. Like a goofball, I thought about asking a few friends three hours before, they were busy, so as usually, I showed up alone, as if that's going to work.

I walked in to this amazing apartment on the Upper West Side, to find more people than expected. (Fifty to seventy, maybe.) I knew none of them, including the host.

Gary and I had connected online. Same publisher, the amazing Jonathan Karp, had been critical to both our books, and Gary was nice enough to invite me. Sounded interesting. (Very similar cover designs, too, not coincidentally. I got to see and earlier version of his, which I think I like even more. Hard to choose.)

But while hosting a party is not a promising time to get to know someone.

I went in anyway.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pizza Rat

This probably shouldn’t make me happy, but it does. Sooooo happy.

Just breaks my heart to see him give up!

It has also prompted some actual policy debate: NY Times story. I'm not sure I like the strategy of taking away garbage cans. But shocking that they have to drag 40 tons of garbage up from those platforms every day. (That must include bus stops and big stations above ground. Hmmmmm.)

Whoops. Losing focus. The rat. I love that little guy.

On a potentially related note, it occurred to me late last week that I'm getting grumpy again, and I'm way overdue on a break from this city. I love it, but it seeps into me, and I need breaks now and then. (Work trips don't help. I need to relax. That's never come easy.)

Colorado? Maybe. I've never been back since I moved away 5 years ago.

Erasing Dylan

For the last several years, I've had a thumbnail pic of Dylan K in the right margin of nearly all my web pages. I have little icons there to direct readers to various pages of interest, and he's been the icon for the page on "the killers" at my Columbine Online site. (It's the site I set up to share huge masses of the evidence I compiled during ten years researching/writing Columbine.) I chose a chilling pic of him, because it was a chilling act. Seemed appropriate.

But every time I see him there, even just those few pixels, it bugs me. And since I've embarked on the campaign to disappear these shooters as much as possible—maximum study with minimum necessary recognition—I've decided to expunge his picture there.

His pix are still on the "killers" page, because that's what it's there for: for people who want to see what they looked like, how they emoted, how they presented themselves. That's important, and that's staying, in that narrow spot. But he's not going to loiter around the rest of my site.

I'm toying with a new icon that doesn't just erase him, but drives home the point that he's been erased. How about this?

That's actual size.

Let me know what you think.

Note: he still shows up on the freeze-frame image for the Columbine intro video. I have to change that in youtube somehow. I'm not sure how. I'll look into it. I'd prefer maybe something like this:

Update: A question in the comments made me realize that while I've been discussing this concept of "disappearing" killers quite a bit, it's still a new idea to most people. So my Buzzfeed piece  should provide some context: Let’s Stop Naming Mass Shooters In Our Reporting. It was an early attempt, but it's a start.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

NYC Event: 'Stories of Lucia Berlin'—I'm speaking

I'm speaking at the only NYC event for breakout bestseller Lucia Berlin next week. Can't wait—hope to see you there. Tell your friends!

It's Wednesday, September 30 at 7:00p.m. at:

McNally Jackson Books
52 Prince St, New York, New York 10012. 212.274.1160 (Map below.)

The other speakers: Stephen Emerson, who edited her new collection; Lydia Davis, who wrote the forward; and noted poet August Kleinzahler. (Links to their essays on Lucia below.) 

Special appearance by David Berlin, and audio of Lucia reading my favorite story, "My Jockey." (It's one page long.)

Meet many amazing people from Lucia's luminous orbit.

Facebook invite to the event here. Of course check out her amazing story collection A Manual for Cleaning Women, already a NY Times bestseller.

I guess it's considered the Lower East Side.* 
I'll be expanding on some of the ideas I laid out in my tribute to Lucia Berlin in Vanity Fair. A small sample from the piece:
Lucia had contempt for bigots, homophobes, or anyone trying to sanitize descriptions. Some girls were ugly, some were whores. Some predators were gorgeous and intoxicating. Grime could be alluring. In my favorite story, “My Jockey,” she undresses her crumpled jockey as an E.R. nurse. “His boots smelled of manure and sweat, but were as soft and dainty as Cinderella’s.” The beauty enchants her, regardless of the stench—or the pain. 
Lucia had an eye for beauty—she plucked it out everywhere. Devout Catholic children in an old Mission school “who trembled their morning prayers.” The playfulness of the old nuns in the same story: “loved by their God and by their children.” Lucia’s aging nuns were gleeful, because they got to teach the little kids, who “responded to love with tenderness.” The young nuns were gaunt and nervous: forced to teach jaded middle schoolers: “they could not use awe or love. . . . Their recourse was impregnability, indifference to the students who were their duty and their life.” 
Read More Lucia Berlin in Vanity Fair. (BTW, I could use help spreading the word. Please consider tweeting, sharing on FB, etc. Thanks.)

* It's below the grid—I'm helpless down there. Haha. But luckily, it's very close to my gym at Astor Place, so I'll find it. For you, it's very close to the NR, 46 or BDFM subway lines. The store's event listing here.)
Probably no appearance by Bobby Sneakers, sadly.

Lydia Davis, the esteemed short-story writer who wrote the book's forward, will also be speaking. You can read Lydia's piece on Lucia in the New Yorker here. And Stephen Emerson, who edited the book, and wrote the introduction (here), will also speak.

After the jump are some incredible pictures from Lucia's past, courtesy of her family, especially Jill. (Thank you!)

Update, Sep 30: Lucia Berlin has just been announced as finalist for the Kirkus Book Prize. This news comes the morning of the event. Exciting!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Why Are Some Evangelicals So Angry?

"Why Are Some Evangelicals So Angry?" That's the title of my new piece up at The Daily Beast.

It's a follow-up to my New Republic piece re-debunking the Columbine martyr myth, restarted by Rick Santorum in the presidential debate Wednesday.

In the new piece, I widen out to look at what's really going on here.

Why does this all matter so much to some Evangelicals? What's the deeper anger about? What's really going on here?

Santorum was bemoaning what he saw, correctly, as the massive difference in social attitudes over the past 16 years. But to understand his/their perspective, I take you back to the period where I did a full-immersion in the Evangelical community after Columbine (enrolling in bible study at Cassie Bernall's church, etc.)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

What's it like to be gay at West Point?

The West Point pillow fight scandal reminded me of the classier side of the Academy I witnessed this spring. I described it in my Vanity Fair piece, What’s It Like to Be a Gay Cadet at West Point These Days?

The opening:
Sara Emsley always knew she wanted to join the U.S. Army, ever since she was a small child. “You can ask any of the kids I made go through an obstacle course at my sixth birthday party,” the West Point cadet recently said. She dressed up as soldier for Halloween for “many, many years,” and never paused to worry about whether the military would let a girl like her fight.
Then she hit adolescence and began to discover her sexuality. She didn’t like what she felt. Girls like that were forbidden from serving, so she denied her own urges. She couldn’t let them stand in the way of her dream.
Emsley first went to college at Virginia Tech, where she finally came out to herself and trusted others, but hid her sexuality from her peers in the college’s R.O.T.C. program. By then, the military had lifted its absurd “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but Emsley still felt it was too dangerous to say anything. Then the U.S. Military Academy at West Point accepted her.
Continue reading What’s It Like to Be a Gay Cadet at West Point These Days?

And of course I came upon this while researching the book I'm working on about two gay soldiers. There's a preview of it linked there. Or click here if you'd like to be notified when it comes out.


ICYMI: My Vanity Fair tribute to breakout bestseller Lucia Berlin & how she transformed my writing. 

Santorum & Columbine martyr: evolution of an instant essay

Last night I took a stab at re-debunking the Columbine martyr myth, restarted by Santorum in the presidential debate.

We've been discussing it on FB, and it occurred to me that readers don't have an accurate sense of how these rapid-reaction pieces get generated, or what we have time to think about. Luckily, two gmail threads, twitter and my iPhone recorded most of the exact times it all transpired.

The evolution:

  1. 7:05pm: Friends started texting/tweeting to me about it. I was taking BobbySneakers for our goodbye walk/run, which lasted an hour, and I didn't see any of this.
  2. Around 7:30, I turned on the TV/tivo, backed up to listen to the exchange, gaped.
  3. I started responding to tweets about it. And wondered whether I had enough to say in a piece. I started thinking about it, while BobbySneakers' dad arrived and I gathered his toys and stuff and turned him over, sadly.
  4. My New Republic editor emailed asking if I had a piece in me, suggesting a few angles. I said yes, and started writing. That was 8:08pm, according to gmail.
  5. I had ambitions to talk about lots of those topics discussed here, but my first order of business was just sorting out what really happened, for people who are all new to this, or for those where it's very fuzzy. 
  6. I tried summarizing, but feared my own memory could be faulty, and/or, I'd get some of it wrong or imprecise if I tried to pound it out quickly, on deadline.
  7. So I introduced the ideas and then pulled up the Word copy of my edited manuscript and pulled in the exact passages.
  8. At 9:16pm, I emailed a draft. 
  9. (I'd marked a spot to insert Santorum's exact quotes, and while Ryan started editing, I searched for a transcript online, found one and sent him the passage and the link. I had not eaten dinner yet, and no time to, but grabbed a piece of cold meat out of the fridge and some carrots to tide me over until we finished.
  10. We went through about 3 rounds of light editing back and forth, mostly him raising questions, requesting sources, links and clarification. I worked through those, fact-checked a few concerns of my own, and at 11:13pm he emailed that he'd just posted the piece.
  11. I started tweeting about it, and responding to readers. Around 1 a.m., I made/ate dinner.

It was a mad scramble just to get the piece written, readable and accurate. Not a lot of time for deep reflection. I had a lot of thoughts about the bigger picture and what this means, and I toyed with them along the way, but nothing that cohered quickly enough for me to feel satisfied that I could address it thoughtfully and articulately at that speed. I'd rather get that stuff right than spit out my first thoughts fast.

I also get frustrated at how knee-jerk some media coverage feels. But I forget what it takes to produce it. It's hard to do much more than respond reflexively at that pace.


ICYMI: My tribute to breakout bestseller Lucia Berlin & how she transformed my writing. 

Santorum and the persistent Columbine Myth of 'Martyr' Cassie Bernall

Rick Santorum put me to work tonight, cranking out this New Republic piece on the Columbine Martyr Myth (Cassie Bernall).

I thought we put that myth to bed 16 years ago, but it just keeps resurfacing. My twitter feed exploded tonight when Santorum dredged it up in the presidential undercard debate.

A taste of the piece:
Like most of the Columbine myths, the martyr story gained traction because it was based on a kernel of truth. A young girl did profess her faith in God at gunpoint, but she lived to tell about it. Her name is Valeen ... 
Read the rest at: Santorum & the Columbine Martyr Cassie Bernall Myth   

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Lucia Berlin: Literary genius who transformed my life—in Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair: Lucia Berlin Is Finally a Bestselling Author.

Lucia Berlin
Lucia Berlin, Albuquerque, 1956
Buddy Berlin/Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin
Eleven years after her death, Lucia Berlin become an overnight literary sensation. The reviews I kind of expected, but it was the ravishing photos of the young Lucia that caught me off guard. How my life might have changed if I'd known her then.

If I had the chance, to meet her then, I'd be wildly tempted, but I'd decline. For ten wonderful years, Lucia lit up my life, and transformed my work. She made my book Columbine possible. And he was helpful on my next book on gay soldiers, too. She taught me how to love myself—or a start, anyway.

It's been quite the whirlwind this month. Three gushing New York Times pieces in four days, then a smaller entry when she hit their bestseller list, and a fifth on the website, calling her a long-lost genius. All in two weeks, that also brought rave reviews from every imaginable quarter, from the New Yorker to Entertainment Weekly and Paris Review.

Lucia Berlin feature in New York Times Arts
Lucia sold more copies of her bold, gritty story collection A Manual For Cleaning Women in the first  week or two of September than all the books in her entire life.

Lucia never felt the excitement of a royalty check. She died destitute. Her three surviving sons will receive the first royalty from Farrar Straus and Giroux next spring. They earned it. They lived most of these stories. They are very funny, but not pretty, and 98 percent of it is true. Often, she didn't even change the names.

That debt to Lucia, I can never repay it, but one small attempt was to capture what she did for me, and to me, in this Vanity Fair piece: Lucia Berlin Is Finally a Bestselling Author.

A taste:

 “You better get over your looks before you lose them,” she told me. “Once they’re gone, it will be too late. You’ll never get over it.”
Lucia Berlin, Albuquerque, 1963
Buddy Berlin/Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin
Lucia had been a dazzling beauty, but I knew her as the kindly grandmother out of a children’s fable. She was permanently tethered to an oxygen tank after that hospital stay: wheeling a mobile tank behind her on a little cart, fumbling with the plastic tubing in her nostrils when she got anxious, ripping it out when I truly exasperated her. She would make her point, smile again, and settle it back in.
I was closing in on 40 by then, repeating her mistakes. Sleeping around frantically, to prove someone wanted me. Hot guys, preferably: desired by the desirable. My self-doubt riddled my writing, Lucia said. She cut to the heart of my problems—with men, with friendships, my work. She was brutally honest, yet compassionate, the way she was with her characters.
She instilled candor, but went further in her own work, to audacity. “Cleaning women do steal”—but not what you might expect. Lucia calls female characters fat and hefty and a boy retarded. Because he was. Same page, she describes the victim of a public sex crime as “an ugly, shy little girl.” Because the charismatic boy with the luxurious eyelashes and gold crucifix glittering against his smooth brown chest was vicious enough to pluck the saddest kid to humiliate. The callous brutality of the abuser is revealed.
El Paso family reunion, 1952. Lucia Berlin is far right, on the ground. Damn, she looks happy. / Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin

Lucia had contempt for bigots, homophobes, or anyone trying to sanitize her descriptions. Some girls were ugly, some were whores. Some predators were gorgeous and intoxicating. Grime could be alluring. In my favorite story, “My Jockey,” . . . {Continue reading at Vanity Fair: Lucia Berlin Is Finally a Bestselling Author.}

A Manual For Cleaning Women — Lucia Berlin

Bobby Sneakers reading Lucia.
Dave Cullen